Monday, June 24, 2013

Houston, We Have A Problem

United Airlines has had its 3rd mishap as it seems in as many days, but not that often. However, the frequency is often for oil systems , and oil indicator sensors. Its too early for knowing what's the problem. Out of all the airlines currently flying the 787, its United who has a rash of indicators circling Houston, Seattle and ... oh well here is the list:

  • On June 24, a United Airlines Flight 94 returned to Houston shortly after takeoff Sunday because of "a brake indicator issue."
  • On June 20, a United flight from London to Houston was diverted to Newark, N.J., because of a low engine oil indicator. 
  • On June 18, a United flight from Tokyo to Denver was diverted to Seattle, Washington, because of an oil filter problem. 
  • On June 12, an All Nippon Airways flight was canceled when an engine would not start. 
  • On June 11, a Japan Airlines flight to Singapore returned to Tokyo because of a deicing problem.
Okay, I see a pattern here: these are not excuses, but mere observations.

ANA has the most 787's and should head the list by mere numbers of aircraft by volume. Japan Airlines has the second most 787's and should come in some faults for a new aircraft. United has a good group of aircraft, but three in a row of faults with sensor's, indicators and filters points to bad luck, faulty maintenance checks, or not understanding all the million parts going into the overly sensitive aircraft.

The good news for United, is that everything is doing what its supposed to do. Tell the operator what it needs to know for safe operation. A cold engine that won't start is a "no duh" big problem. The sensor was, it didn't start! Deicing not working is it simply failed. But sensor indicators flashing messages consistently with one airline, suggest many options could be in play.

  • Faulty performance of part
  • Faulty Part like an oil filter
  • Faulty System as in brakes

  • Supplier quality control
  • Maintenance oversight could not detect non performing sensor or part.
  • System anomaly hitting just one airline
  • Bad Luck
I don't believe in bad luck but statistical weirdness can happen.

Since United has the smallest fleet of the above mentioned 787 operators, I would as a United employee would want to examine all protocols for maintaining, setting systems parameters or procedures concerning the affected areas. Boeing and United will find out what happened in every instance.  The glitches, except the engine no start can be classified as annoying new aircraft problems that can occur in normal operations. Boeing doesn't want to go there with a press release of that ilk. They want to remain proactive with due diligence and clean-up of system issues even if everything falls on just one customer like United. Statistics say it is unlikely an airline would bear the burden of glitches, but not impossible. So they will go forward of checking and rechecking until they isolate the problems that occur as individual events, regardless of why United got hit for three in a row in a short time. Hence the rule of threes. "Bad things seem to happen in groups of threes". A very non scientific or statistical conclusion. A belief no one should establish for safe flying.

United will continue to seek answers with Boeing, one incident at a time. Until answers come forward as part of the 787 maturation process for operations. A new book is being written by customer operations over the world for this extremely complex aircraft. This will be true for the A350 when it starts service. Hopefully all the debugging is found in testing.